Elkins residents express concern about local youth sports

ELKINS — Concerned individuals addressed the Randolph County Board of Education and county officials regarding concerns about community and student involvement in school athletics.

Charles Conway, an Elkins High School alumnus and area youth coach for multiple sports, said he feels there are “negative vibes” surrounding EHS sports, and with the power of positivity, the cycle can be reversed.

“I believe we are stuck in a place right now where the old saying ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is not happening in Elkins anymore,” Conway said. “We need to come together and work together and most importantly, do what is right for the youth. … I really believe there is a great community here; I believe the athletes — whether it’s football, baseball or basketball — are phenomenal.”

DeManuel Smith, also an EHS alumni and area youth coach, said he has seen a lack of interest in high school athletics from both students and people in the community.

“We, as adults, can’t blame the students. What have we done – as a parent, as a teacher or as a coach – to show them the way along the way,” he proposed. “Have we taught team spirit, have we taught school spirit, have we taught the importance of being in the stands and supporting your teammates or your classmates?”

Chris Lee, another EHS alumni and area youth coach, emphasized the importance of developing student-athletes.

“There is no excuse for not developing our athletes or giving them an opportunity,” Lee said.

Smith echoed Lee, adding the development of athletes through participating in youth level sports is critical.

“I think it starts at a very young level, as far as developing our children and developing that (desire) to get to the next level and play a sport, or the desire to join the band,” Smith said. “I think, as a community, what we are doing is separating the divisions, so youth is basically it’s own country, middle school is another country and the high school is another country. So, you have three individual groups in one area that aren’t doing what it takes to keep these kids involved, to keep them off the video games, to keep them off the cell phones or to keep them off the streets.”

Similarly, Conway added, with support from the community, local young athletes and school athletic teams can be successful.

“I believe that if we are given the opportunity, not only can we flip the youth and give them more opportunities — such as college scholarships and better futures, but most importantly, we can bring the community together,” Conway said. “With the support (of the community) we can start seeing some good things happen instead of the constant negativity.”

Lee said the EHS football team, specifically, is in a “critical position,” adding numbers are “troubling” and decreasing.

“I think that we are really in a critical moment for Elkins High School football,” he said. “Why are these numbers dropping? I hear plenty of excuses from people around town, oftentimes perpetuated by people in positions of leadership around our youth. I think sometimes these excuses leach to the students, and one of them is ‘kids don’t want to play youth sports or sports anymore.’ … Another excuse I hear often is ‘We can’t compete with these bigger schools,’ and I believe after Bridgeport left AA, we are the biggest AA school in the state. We can’t compete with winning programs if we don’t have one ourselves.”

In order to address students’ lack of interest and participation in school sports, Smith proposed the county present a survey to students asking questions such as “Why do you choose not to attend sporting events?” or “Why do you choose not to participate in school sports?”

“When you look at the numbers from the time they go from youth, to middle school and high school, the numbers dramatically drop off,” Smith said. “Somewhere along the lines, things are falling off and our kids aren’t interested — whether it’s a belief in their abilities, whether we don’t have the right people in place as far as who is coaching and developing — this starts from a young age, it goes from the bottom up.”

In order to be successful and to have the ability to be competitive with other Class AA schools, Lee proposed that the county work to implement change and create a positive athletic culture.

“We need to find a way to change this culture. I think what it really comes back to is there is a lack of development that has turned into this circular cycle — we don’t have great numbers, so we can’t have a freshman team,” Lee said. “Kids wants to play sports, they want to play sports well and they want to have an opportunity to compete.”

While raising concerns during the board’s regular meeting, Lee, Conway and Smith emphasized they want to see youth in the area succeed and are willing to work with county officials to find avenues and resources to ensure students and student-athletes can thrive.

“We would do anything to bring the power of positivity back,” Conway said. “I’d like to see the kids have a brighter future and have the opportunity to earn college scholarships.”

In an effort to ensure students have ample opportunities to be successful in team and individual sports, Conway extended an olive branch from his coaching staff, offering their time and dedication.

“At this point in time, myself and my coaching staff feel that through the faith of God, through pushing academics on the kids and most importantly, if we instill family mottos in them, we can give back to the community tremendously and reverse the cycle — we can get the support back in the bleachers, get things happening that need to be happening, like fundraising.”

“We need to provide some real solutions, and the only way we can provide real solutions is if we, as a community, and this board, as a board, looks into implementing some actual change,” Lee added. “It’s not trying to change the narrative by talking about it differently, it’s actually changing the culture. … There are people in this community, some in this room, that can actually bring this winning culture to Elkins, if given the opportunity.”

Smith noted he believes community support has decreased over the years.

“(Many people) remember a time back in the 80s and 90s when you walked into the armory, the bleachers were full on both sides, the student section was here and there was a pep band,” he said. “The entire community was there and there was never a time when the bleachers weren’t full because everybody in the community came together, and I think that’s what we’re lacking in our community, not just from a football standpoint, but from athletics in general.”

Smith said he believes the community needs to be brought back together in order for team sports, and individual athletes, to be successful.

“If (coaches) have support to get people in the stands, it is going to help the children, it’s going to help the concession stands, it’s going to help the school. Why? Because it’s going to raise money and feed back into the school system and provide for uniforms, provide for equipment or if there are extra things that are needed, we will have the resources. It takes the community as a whole to do that.”

Smith, Lee and Conway served as coaches for the 2018 Elkins Bengals team that earned the Mountain Youth Football League title.

Board of Education President Amanda Smith responded by saying she could see each speaker was passionate about students and student-athletes and encouraged them to speak with county administrators to find a resolution to this issue.